Plans approved to put 21st Century library at the heart of Town Centre

9 Dec 2021 10:30
Published by: Scott Callan

Stockport Council has approved plans to put a new 21st Century library at the heart of a new £14.5m, government funded development in Merseyway with the aim of bringing thousands of visitors back to Stockport.

This decision will transform Stockport town centre to help the town overcome the economic devastation felt by high streets across Britain by the impact of Covid-19. It will also-improve the lives and educational prospects of tens of thousands of children across Stockport as well as 11,000 adults across the borough who either cannot read or can barely read.

The decision means that Stockport's town centre library services will move from the current Central Library building on the A6 into Stockroom, a new £14.5 million learning and discovery space funded by the Government's Future High Streets Fund (FHSF).

Evidence from around the UK shows that creating a new 21st Century library, cafe and learning space in Merseyway will breathe new life into vacant retail units and bring thousands of visitors back to Stockport town centre as other, similar developments up and down the country have done. According to latest data from the footfall counter Springboard, nationally the number of shoppers in towns and cities across the UK is still down a quarter (23.2%) on December 2019.

After opening in 2017, Chester Storyhouse received one million visits in its first year. Four-fifths of these visits - almost 800,000 - were for the library, cafe, and community facilities and the remaining fifth for the cinema and theatre. Children's book loans increased by 50% as Storyhouse helped to inspire a love of reading in children and young people.

In contrast visitor numbers to the current Central Library building in Stockport have fallen by almost half (42%) from April 2012 to March 2020. Book loans have also dropped significantly, particularly amongst young people aged 15-19 who are taking out 61% fewer loans than in 2017.

Councillor Elise Wilson, Leader of Stockport Council said: "This is in the best interests of the people of Stockport for the long-term. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend £14.5m of Government money to improve our town centre and to help hundreds of our businesses build back from the economic devastation of Covid-19 by creating a learning and cultural space for the whole borough, which will attract thousands of much needed visitors back to Stockport town centre.

"We are committed to helping Stockport build back better from the economic devastation of Covid-19 while also committing to preserving use and access of the current Central Library building."

The council could risk losing £14.5m of Government money if it voted against the move. The council's report to cabinet members advised them that the final proposals for Stockroom had to be consistent with the Business Case put forward in June 2020 which included plans for a new library and was assessed against HM Treasury Green Book rules. The report warned that: "Any significant departure from the approved submission is likely to jeopardise the funding of all elements of the scheme."

Stockport was one of just 15 local authorities to win its full funding submission in the first round of Future High Streets funding despite hundreds of expressions of interest in the scheme.

The cabinet decision follows six months of extensive engagement and consultation carried out by an independent Market Research consultant and recommends the relocation of library services from the Central Library building on the A6 into Stockroom, a much larger, accessible learning and discovery space in Merseyway, at the heart of Stockport's town centre.

The engagement and consultation exercise was specifically designed to ensure a wide range of views were heard about the proposed relocation of the library service. Although the results were not totally clear cut, there was clear support for a new 21st Century library from families with children under 18, children, young people and businesses in Stockport who would benefit from a much0needed increase in passing trade. More than three-quarters (76%) of respondents taking part in the face-to-face survey said they would visit Stockroom and 73% of respondents from the open online survey also stated that they would be likely to visit it.

Stockroom, will be five times larger than the existing Central Library building enabling the council to expand the library service, improving the stock of books held as well as delivering a new cafe, performance area, 'best in class', high quality toilets, new parent and child facilities, and a sensory room as part of plans to make Stockroom one of the most accessible buildings in the Greater Manchester.

The council committed in July 2021 to explore future uses for the Central Library building that would retain public access to this well-loved building. Having listened to concerns raised through the consultation the report sets out a number of options that will be explored over the coming months before a decision is made in Summer 2022.

Councillor David Sedgwick Cabinet Member for Citizen Focus and Engagement, said: "If Stockport Central Library was thriving and if the town centre was busier than it ever had been we would not need to be here today.

"The way people learn has changed since Central Library was built more than 100 years ago as has the way the people shop and use town centres since the advent of online shopping and the acceleration of online retail cause by a global health crisis.

"We simply cannot ignore the huge decline in usage of the current Central Library building which has seen visitor numbers almost halve in eight years. At the same time new, modern, accessible libraries across the country are attracting hundreds of thousands of much-needed visitors to town and city centres and inspiring a life-long love of learning in children and adults. We now have a golden opportunity to transform Stockport town centre to help hundreds of businesses bounce back from the devastation of Covid-19 which is too important to ignore."

Giving the people of Stockport a modern 21st century library will ignite their imaginations, inspire them to learn, and raise the aspirations so that they will grow up believing they can achieve their ambitions.

The development of Stockroom will form another stage in the regeneration and transformation that is ongoing across the whole Town Centre and has already seen successes in Stockport Exchange, Redrock, the Markets and Underbanks and the emerging work at Stockport Interchange and of the Mayoral Development Corporation.

The council has listened to the concerns raised by residents in the consultation regarding the future use of the Central Library building. Five options have been put forward for the Central Library building after services are transferred to Stockroom.

These include:

·        Moving the Continuing Education Service from their current location

·        A new primary healthcare facility for the town centre

·        A new community enterprise space in the town centre

·        A co-working/shared workspace

·        Relocation of the Coroner's Court from Mount Tabor

The council's preferred future use for the building would be the 'Continuing Education Service'. The service works across the borough, supporting and developing learning opportunities in communities to promote economic well-being and social inclusion. As well as ensuring public access to the building was retained, this use aligns with the principles from the Carnegie Trust in terms of using the building to help give people the chance to improve their lives.

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